New Playlist: January 2021

Good morning/afternoon, readers. I am back with again with my monthly exorcism of all the music I absorbed over the past 31 days. January was very much a month of transition—with regards to what music I was listening to, I mean. In terms of new releases, you’ll find some 2020 stragglers as well as brand new, hot off the presses January 2021 drops, and in terms of older music, I finished up my 1995 deep dive and began my investigation into 1991 (which was thirty years ago, folks!).

Several of these songs appeared on albums I wrote up in Pressing Concerns—I will spend a little less time going over those. Cicala, Swamp Dogg, Palberta, Home Blitz, Tucker Riggleman & the Cheap Dates, and Kiwi Jr. both get two selections this time around. The next Rosy Overdrive post will probably be an album roundup post sometime Mid-February.

You can follow the whole playlist on Spotify here. Bandcamp embeds are included in the list when available.

“Truck Stop”, Cicala
From Cicala (2021, Acrobat Unstable)

We’re starting 2021 in medias res—more specifically, at a truck stop in Oklahoma. We’re also hitting up a Taco Bell in California, a rest stop in Minnesota, and we might be falling in love with Carolina (the states). This song isn’t really a love song to the open road (“Find someone I like enough / And live off the land as much as I can” muses Quinn Cicala at one point, but it’s clear from the rest of the number that they’re spitballing here). However, it does cause some unintentional nostalgia for this writer who used to split their time between three states and would routinely follow the strings that bound me to them via interstates, but…you know…

“The Heart of Human Trafficking”, Chris Brokaw
From Puritan (2021, 12XU)

If I were to be so generous as to allow myself to label one song from each of these 30-plus-song playlists an “epic”, “The Heart of Human Trafficking” is January 2021’s epic. Although it doesn’t directly recall any of the bands in which Chris Brokaw made a name for himself during the 90s and 00s (Come, Codeine, The New Year), it still feels drawn from the same era, where Neil Young-influenced indie rock bands were creating exciting guitar workouts—see Silkworm, Dino Jr., Built to Spill, not to mention Thurston Moore’s solo work and Sonic Youth contributions. The titular heart of human trafficking, according to Brokaw, is “deep in the jungle”, which I guess I’ll have to take his word on that, but it does remind me of Pere Ubu’s  “Heart of Darkness”—certainly not a bad thing.

“Trouble”, Hen Ogledd
From Free Humans (2020, Domino)

Free Humans is a bonkers double album—I can’t get too much into it because these playlist posts take long enough even just restricting myself to the songs at hand. Suffice it to say: there are a lot of successes over that album’s 79 minutes, but “Trouble” is something else entirely. This is a perfect pop song! The first of three on this playlist. This song’s nearly six minutes long and it still feels like they could’ve coasted on that beautiful chorus for even longer. For some reason, I cannot get it out of my head that this would make an excellent country song—maybe Sturgill Simpson could cover it on a future bluegrass album and turn those synth breakdowns into dueling banjo/fiddle parts…which is not to say that the song needs improved at all.

“Who Do They Think They Are”, Swamp Dogg
From Surfin’ in Harlem (1991, Volt)

I’m not sure why Surfin’ in Harlem isn’t traditionally listed among Jerry Williams Jr.’s best albums. I could hazard a few guesses—timeline-wise, it came out at a time when there didn’t seem much interest in Swamp Dogg (something that has thankfully shifted in recent years), and the 10-minute “Appelle Moi-Noir” (“Call Me Black”) probably would make certainly folks uncomfortable. Nevertheless this might be my favorite Dogg album I’ve heard other than Total Destruction to Your Mind, and “Who Do They Think They Are” is the perfect vintage Dogg tune to kick it off. There are no traces whatsoever of late 80s production on here, which probably got the record shrugged off at the time but has of course aged quite well.

“Summer Sun”, Palberta
From Palberta5000 (2021, Wharf Cat)

In my Palberta5000 writeup, I said “the 90-second stomper ‘Summer Sun’ just might be the most fully-developed pop song of them all”. The more I hear it the more I find to enjoy from it. The main vocal melody and inflection sounds like it could’ve been copied and pasted from a vintage Sheryl Crow song, the backing vocals have a girl-group vibe going on, and while the ramshackle instrumentation initially seems like the foil, it never falls apart or goes anarchic. It’s all complimentary, and easy to soak up.  

“Final Decay”, Home Blitz
From All Through the Year (2020, Sophomore Lounge)

As we have established multiple times here, garnering comparisons to Game Theory—as Daniel DiMaggio’s Home Blitz has—is a surefire way to get the attention of the author of this blog. Although this comparison is warranted (more on that later), “Final Decay” is probably not the best example of that side of DiMaggio. What we have here is a lo-fi, drum machine-and-bass-led number with a genuinely dancefloor-ready chorus and a spoken-word-breakdown bridge, all coming together to make a perfect pop song (that’s #2 so far). Sounds kind of like if 1990s-era Of Montreal tried to make a song that sounded like 2010s-era Of Montreal.

“Storming in Memphis”, Tucker Riggleman & the Cheap Dates
From Alive and Dying Fast (2021, WarHen)

In my review of Alive and Dying Fast, I wrote that “Storming in Memphis” was “lilting shuffle travelogue” that “recall[s] the songwriting of fellow traveler William Matheny, but while Matheny’s best recent moments find him looking back with a new-found clarity, Riggleman paints himself as a man very much still in the middle of it all, and still feeling everything as if it’s just happened to him”. Like “Truck Stop” earlier on the playlist, this is another classic “asking big and existential questions while the shitty-food-and-caffeine-addled mind wanders in a way that only the open road can allow” song. Memphis—where Big Star languished in obscurity and The Replacements made their strongest bid not to do so—is anything but a random mid-sized U.S. city to invoke, especially considering another song on the same album is effectively a tribute to Paul Westerberg.

“Letter to Memphis”, Pixies
From Trompe le Monde (1991, 4AD)

I do distinctly remember saying the Pixies were overrated a few months ago, when I was in an agitated mood. Politifact has rated this statement as “mostly false”—perhaps I should have been more accurate and gone with “Bossanova and Surfer Rosa are varying degrees of overrated, I never need to hear ‘Where Is My Mind?’ ever again, Doolittle is more or less as good as people say it is, and Trompe le Monde has actually become underrated somehow”. It’s a weird one, but “Letter to Memphis” is a crowd-pleaser—it’s the Pixies at their glam-pop-punk best. The Breeders are still better, though.

“Maria”, Steve Earle & The Dukes
From J.T. (2021, New West)

In a Rolling Stone piece about the late Justin Townes Earle that came out a couple weeks ago, it details a moment early in Justin’s career where Steve hears his son’s band play a then-unreleased “Maria” and mistakes it for an Elvis Costello song, which of course flatters Justin. In J.T., the elder Earle’s moving tribute to his son recorded in the months after his tragic death, Steve really leans into the Costellian power pop aspects of “Maria” compared to the more subdued version Justin eventually released on Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now.  I imagine this country-rock version (which sounds like The Dukes as much as it does The Attractions, despite the obvious influence) is closer to how it came off live, which seems appropriate. J.T. is above all else a celebration, and “Maria” is its most jubilant moment.

“Double Ono”, Subtitles
From Commoner (2021, self-released)

I don’t really know much about Subtitles other than they’re apparently from New Jersey, but I stumbled onto Commoner this month and it gets a thumbs up from me. It’s a perfectly solid 20-minute mini-album that shades its underdog IndieRock with punk, emo, and alt-country in various spots. “Double Ono” is a rocker, a nervous-sounding stomp that really erupts in the final minute (which is nearly half of the song’s 2:30 runtime).

“Fruitcake”, Subsonic Eye
From Nature of Things (2021, Middle Class Cigars)

I called “Fruitcake” “pure guitar pop” in my writeup of Nature of Things, which is not a descriptor I would dispute with a few weeks of hindsight. Most of the song features treadmill-speed bass plucking and frantic guitar strumming that occasionally contorts itself into a jangling sound, but neither ever get in the way of lead singer Wahida’s vocals. The feel that the Singaporean band gives the instrumentation compliments the song’s urgent, repetitive lyrics. It’s an intriguing character study (“She’s a trainwreck / Nailed to ideas” and “She’s walking like that / With the devil in her eyes”) that Wahida sells with the right mix of melancholy and energy.

“Six Flags America”, Mister Goblin
From Four People in an Elevator and One of Them Is the Devil (2021, Exploding in Sound)

There is a Six Flags not too far from where I’m living these days. It’s not the titular Six Flags America, located in Largo, Maryland, but I was never a Rollercoaster Kid (traumatic log flume incident and all that) so I couldn’t really tell you the difference. Still, the loops and slides rising off in the distance from the interstate is always a sight to behold. Mister Goblin, the solo project of Sam Woodring, formerly of the underrated Two Inch Astronaut, seems to share none of my amusement park-based reservations, however. My personal feelings don’t get in the way of me enjoying “Six Flags America”—whatever muse Mr. Goblin needs to follow to bring songs like this out of him is fine by me. It’s a beautiful acoustic ballad, enhanced by Sadie Dupuis’ vocals and Matt Gatwood’s cello playing. While most of my favorite Mister Goblin moments thus far had been easier to trace back to the pop-punk-post-hardcore-etc of Two Inch Astronaut (like the excellent “Calendar Dogs” from 2019’s Is Path Warm?), “Six Flags America” is a strong argument for another dimension of Woodring’s songwriting.

“Waiting in Line”, Kiwi Jr.
From Cooler Returns (2021, Sub Pop)

There is something oddly pleasing to me about a band taking the most immediately pleasing, catchiest song on their album and sticking it dead last in the tracklist. I realize that streaming and the internet and whatnot have made this a much less bold move, but it appeals to a certain part of me—contrarian, self-sabotaging, difficult, whatever you’d like to call it. Regardless of its position on Cooler Returns, however, there’s nothing difficult about “Waiting in Line”. It’s pure pop, and it’s no accident. Every short guitar fill, keyboard blast, the clap-along-fuck-you drumbeat, the “You-hoo-hoOOoo” in the chorus, the just-the-right-length outro—all of this is scientifically designed to make this song as hooky and catchy as possible. Cooler Returns showed that Kiwi Jr. is more than just a party band, but for 3 minutes and thirty seconds you have to wonder what would be so wrong about that anyway.

“Blunt Force Concussion”, The Dirty Nil
From Fuck Art (2021, Dine Alone)

I’ve talked about “perfect pop songs” already on this playlist. Here we have Canadian punk/hard rockers The Dirty Nil, who have given me no choice but to give this label to their “Blunt Force Concussion”, which is against all odds probably my favorite song of 2021 so far. When you’ve got a hook as strong as this song does, you have given yourself a certain amount of leeway in how you put the rest of it together. You can grab some easy rhymes. You can go full snotty pop-punk dude and sing about how you’re absolutely fucking terrified of commitment but you’ve still got feelings too, you promise. You can assume rock and roll band posture while putting a sheen over everything that’d make the most radio-ready top 40 single blush. Hell, you probably should do all this, because I can’t imagine “Blunt Force Concussion” working any other way. Also, they called their album Fuck Art and released it on New Year’s Day—it’s hard not to admire these guys on some level.

“Retainer”, Fuvk
From Imaginary Deadlines (2021, Z Tapes)

In my Imaginary Deadlines writeup, I said “Retainer” “begins humbly and lo-fi only to evolve into a roaring alt-rocker in its second half”. Other than a brief instrumental interlude towards the end, Shirley Zhu is tearing through confessional lyrics, singing nonstop for nearly the full three minutes. Her unwavering vocals anchor the song as it evolves from an acoustic number and more and more instrumentation joins in the mix, leading to the aforementioned cathartic, roaring ending and a near-acapella epilogue. The music rises to the occasion provided by Zhu’s tormented lyrics—or, perhaps, the other way around.

“The Pearl”, Lorenzo Wolff and Bartees Strange
From Down Where the Valleys Are Low: Another Otherworld for Judee Sill (2021, StorySound)

Judee Sill is a big blind spot for me, I will admit. Frankly, I still haven’t stopped confusing her with Julee Cruise. Producer Lorenzo Wolff, with help from a red-hot Bartees Strange, seems intent on changing this, however, as he’s got a whole-ass Sill cover album coming out in March. Wolff and Strange give the song a soul-rock stomp, a pretty big change from the orchestral folk of the original version (which I went and listened to just for this post). Perhaps this radical reimagining would be blasphemous if I were a folkie with a strong previous attachment to Judee Sill and Heart Food, but with no pre-conceived notions going into either, I can safely say I prefer the new version. Not to say that I dislike Judee’s version, however—the strings don’t do much for me but once the banjo kicks in I see the appeal.

“The Curse”, Mekons
From The Curse of the Mekons (1991, A&M)

I usually cite the Mekons’ first decade after reforming (1985 to 1994) as their “golden age”, but ’91’s The Curse of the Mekons, lacking a cohering theme or big single, has always been the one I spent the least time with from that era. This is not going to be a full album review, but after giving it some time on the occasion of its 30th anniversary coming up later this year, I can safely say: it’s good, folks. Maybe not quite as good as I Heart Mekons or Fear and Whiskey, but, you know, what is? Plus, it has this very excellent opening and title track, a woozy, accordion-heavy mug-raiser of a tune that’s the Mekons at their folk-punk best (actually meaning folk sensibilities mixed with punk instrumentation, not whatever the hell it means now).

“All Around You”, Joensuu 1685
From ÖB (2020, GEMS)

Joensuu 1685 is a Finnish band featuring members who have collaborated with Wolf Parade’s Spencer Krug, and there is a clear Wolf Parade/Krug/Moonface/Sunset Rubdown influence on their music, particularly in singer Mikko Joensuu’s vocals. “All Around You”, however, doesn’t directly harken to any of Krug’s esoteric compositions, preferring to trade in the kind of wide-open, heartland synthpop that’s more frequently explored by the other prominent member of Wolf Parade, Dan Boeckner. The song is based off what is basically a carnival ride keyboard riff, the kind of beat that actually does make you want to get up and move, and an unabashed, joyful “I’m gonna wrap myself around you” chorus (subbing in “arms” and “heart” for “self” in later lines).

“Part of Me Crying”, This Is Lorelei
From Jimmy Buffett Tape (2021, self-released)

Water from Your Eyes’ Nate Amos is back barely a month after his last EP with another short, sweet collection of pop songs under his This Is Lorelei moniker. The minute-and-change “Part of Me Crying” is my favorite from Jimmy Buffett Tape, although the whole thing is worth a listen. Built around a nice, fuzzy riff, the song manages to pack a surprising amount in its brief runtime. We’re off to the races immediately with “You know you know how to take my face off” as the opening line, and Amos doesn’t let up from there.

“Coming Soon”, Matthew Sweet
From Catspaw (2021, Omnivore)

Catspaw stands out most prominently among Matthew Sweet’s increasingly impressive discography due to its full embrace of the classic-AOR-era-guitar heroics that had always been an undercurrent of Sweet’s work, and in this particular arena “Coming Soon” does not disappoint. Why this song in particular gets the playlist nod over the others, however, is the pop songwriting which allows “Coming Soon” to stand arm-in-arm with career highlights such as “Sick of Myself” and “Evangeline”.  Sweet isn’t messing around from the opening “You’ve arrived to bring about the end of the world / I’m about to make you mine”, and spends the rest of the 2:30 effectively fighting the lead guitar for the listener’s attention with a stately vocal melody and lyrics that suggest something higher-concept that your run-of-the-mill love song. Even if Sweet ultimately intended it as such, the best ones (like this one) find new grooves to try out and questions to ask.

“The Diner”, Dan Wriggins
From Dent / The Diner (2021, Orindal)

Dan Wriggins has spent the last half-decade fronting the Philadelphia alt-country band Friendship, who have released a handful of excellent records (including 2017’s Shock Out of Season, which would be on the shortlist for my album of the last decade). I could’ve chosen either side of Wriggins’s debut solo single for this playlist, but there’s something about the way he sings “The Diner” that resonated with me in particular. The way Wriggins strains and reaches for the final “Like when youuuu were hanging with meeeee” towards the end of the song is reminiscent of his role in Friendship’s greatest moments, like the chorus of “Skip to the Good Part”. There are excellent little instances like this throughout the song—you can practically hear him ruefully shaking his head while singing “You got excited telling me a story / And I was feeling it”. Wriggins has just announced his debut solo EP coming out next month, and even though this song isn’t technically on it, it’s definitely got me anticipating it.

“Sleepyhead”, Camp Trash
From Downtiming (2021, Count Your Lucky Stars)

In my writeup of Downtiming, I said “The ‘Hey Jealousy’ intro of ‘Sleepyhead’ gives way to a troubling and surreal scene that nevertheless doesn’t get in the way of that driving, anthemic chorus”.  In the weeks since that, “Sleepyhead” has remained my favorite from that EP, although (perhaps because?) I still have many unanswered questions about what’s exactly going on here. In whose lawn are the three dead boys? Is this part of the vision mentioned earlier, or is this really happening? “Life’s much harder when you’re feeling out constant control or lack thereof”, despite (perhaps because?) being hard to parse, seems to be the thesis of the song. Truthfully, I’m not really trying to figure this out on my average listen, mostly just letting them hooks wash over me.

“Corner Store”, Palberta
From Palberta5000 (2021, Wharf Cat)

This is not the Girlpool song of the same name, although there is a certain similar charm between the two. While that particular song feels the need to temper its bitter-sweetness with an abrasive middle instrumental, however, the Palbertan Corner Store goes for broke much like Palberta5000 did as a whole. Those excellent harmonies I mentioned in “Summer Sun” are back again, not only accenting the lead vocals but adding a whole alternate dimension to the song for most of its runtime. I’m not sure if there’s more going on in the background here than in “Summer Sun”, but the slower tempo and longer length (two and a half whole minutes!) give one a chance to appreciate them just a little bit more.

“I’ve Never Been to Africa (And It’s Your Fault)”, Swamp Dogg
From Surfin’ in Harlem (1991, Volt)

Even if all that I said about Surfin’ in Harlem earlier—it being underrated within Mr. Dogg’s discography and aging particularly well and whatnot—wasn’t true, it would still have justified its existence easily just by virtue of having “I’ve Never Been to Africa (And It’s Your Fault)” on it. Built on the foundation of a killer piano riff and bolstered by some insistent saxophone playing in its latter half, the song pulls no punches musically. But this is somehow, as you may have gathered from the song title, not even the focal point of the track, but rather merely background pieces to the lyrics, which find Swamp Dogg at his angriest and most Afrocentric (which is saying something!).  In a 2021 in which the richest person in the world is a white man from South Africa, some of the most “of the time” lyrics from the song actually might be as relevant as ever.

“The Driver (Pt. 1)”, Terry Reid
From The Driver (1991, Warner UK)

This short, entirely acoustic interlude is the best 45 seconds on The Driver, an album that is deeply fascinating but also just as deeply marred by unfortunate late 1980s production choices. Terry Reid, aka “Superlungs”, does his best to single-handedly carry this album with his voice over gated reverb and weepy synths, but I keep coming back to this beautiful English ballad and thinking about what could have been instead. If such production techniques don’t scare you off (and they really better not, because it’s one of the most egregious offenders I’ve heard and I have a decent tolerance) there’s a cheesy, full-length “Pt. 2” at the end of the album as well.

“Heaven Beats Iowa”, Cub Scout Bowling Pins
From Heaven Beats Iowa (2021, Guided by Voices, Inc.)

Title track from Robert Pollard’s latest side-project, recorded with the other members of the current Guided by Voices lineup. In my Heaven Beats Iowa writeup, I said “[These] six tracks have a kind of muddier and less formal feel to them than the last few proper GBV albums, with Pollard’s vocals being buried a bit in the mix. It feels, in spirit, kin to Guided by Voices’ mid-90s kitchen sink EPs, but sonically it reminds me most of 2019’s slapdash, recorded-on-tour-buses-and-hotels Warp and Woof.” “Heaven Beats Iowa” the song is the most pure pop of the bunch, guided by a sugary organ part and some tastefully chugging power chords. It’s one of the simpler song structures for a prominent Pollard number in awhile, and his vocals take a backseat, content to let the shiny instrumentation do the heavy lifting in the verses, but turning up just in time do deliver a classic refrain.

“Darkness on the Face of the Earth”, Willie Nelson
From Teatro (1998, Island Def Jam)

Oh, uh, I’m a Willie Nelson person now. This happened at some point in January, not sure when exactly. I spent a good deal of time with his half-dozen or so most well-regarded albums in the first half of the month, and they’re all varying degrees of greatness. It’s the stuff that should get shoved under the nose of those saying they like “every kind of music but country”. It’s hard to choose just one song to represent all this because Willie’s songs—and I mean this in the best way possible—start to blur together if you listen to enough of them in a row. “Darkness on the Face of the Earth” (and a lot of 1998’s Teatro, for that matter) stuck with me, however. There’s a real simple, effortless excellence to Willie’s best songs, and this one (a confident re-recording of a song from his early years) is a good an exemplar as any. She left him and now the entire world is dark. Maybe he’s just in Alaska?

“In Your Head”, Kendra Smith
From Five Ways of Disappearing (1995, 4AD)

On its surface, “In Your Head” is pretty straightforward. It’s a 90s pop-alt-rock released on 4AD that’s equal parts slacker and dreamy, and it is in the same conversation as something that would be written by a Deal or Tanya Donnelly. Kendra Smith, however, didn’t take the conventional path that led to “In Your Head”. She spent the 80s jumping from cult band to cult band—she was the bassist for The Dream Syndicate when they made their canonical Paisley Underground/psychedelic debut album, did a stint in supergroup Rainy Day (featuring a couple Bangles, as well as members of Game Theory, The Three O’Clock, and The Rain Parade), and teamed up with the late David Roback in Opal (who replaced her with Hope Sandoval after her departure, changed the band’s name to Mazzy Star, and the rest is history). Somehow, Five Ways of Disappearing was the only album she ever made under her own name—she’s out of music now mostly, which is a shame considering how worthwhile this album is. Not all of this album is as accessible as “In Your Head” (peep “Bohemian Zebulon” if you’d rather go the other way) but for four minutes we’re left to ponder: Mazzy Star, The Breeders, Veruca Salt—why not Kendra Smith?

“The Freed Pig”, Sebadoh
From III (1991, Homestead)

You can’t ever accuse Lou Barlow of holding anything back. There’s a part in the Dinosaur Jr. chapter of Our Band Can Be Your Life which talks about how Barlow would intentionally be obnoxious and uncomfortable toward J. Mascis due to some sort of cocktail of anxious, insecure young man emotions and lack of coping mechanisms. It’s illuminating, but also unnecessary, because Barlow had already penned this song in 1991 that basically admitted it all. “You were right / I was battling you, trying to prove myself” starts it off, and Lou elaborates with “I’m self-righteous and rude…tapping ‘til I drive you insane”. Like many Sebadoh songs it’s absolutely brutal towards its author, but there’s an undercurrent of “you’re no better than I am” towards the song’s subject that indicates self-awareness shouldn’t necessarily be conflated with healing and self-improvement. Of course, the song is fantastically-written—before entering the weed-, distortion-, and Eric Gaffney-laced terrordome of III, we get one classic boilerplate-setting alt-rock anthem from Lou that reminds us that we shouldn’t take for granted his influence, for better or worse, over so much music I cover here.

“Night Star”, Squitch
From Learn to Be Alone (2020, Disposable America)

I think it would accurate to describe “Night Star” as a “ditty”. While the majority of Learn to Be Alone is interested in mathy guitar parts and off-kilter structures, with this one Squitch repurpose the main riff as a foundation to build a more conventional (relatively) pop rocker. This is another example of a band sticking their catchiest song at the close of their record, but it has an air of finality to it that gives it weight as the capper. Makes sense for a group making an album called Learn to Be Alone would like to leave the listener with a rumination on just that. And I do say “rumination” rather than “condemnation” or “endorsement”—anyone can make an anthem out of bold proclamations, but it’s more impressive to do the same with more hesitant and nuanced emotions.

“We’ll Ride in Your Car”, Dave Scanlon
From Pink in Each, Bright Blue, Bright Green (2021, Whatever’s Clever)

In my Pink in Each, Bright Blue, Bright Green writeup, I wrote that “We’ll Ride in Your Car” is “a beautifully straightforward slowcore ballad that would be an attention-grabber anywhere”. Like a lot of that album, it’s a very sparse composition, almost entirely made up of Scanlon’s gentle vocals and his minimal, barely-more-than-root-note guitar picking. Combine that with its romantically evocative lyrics (“And let God decide / If buttons stay buttoned / If shoulders stay clothed”) and you have a pop song stripped to its barest essentials.

“9 Times a Week”, We Are Joiners
From Clients + Carriers (2020, Totally Real)

Dutch lo-fi pop rockers We Are Joiners split the difference between cacophonic and melodic here, outfitting “9 Times a Week” with crowd-pleasers such as a sweet vocal melody, tasteful acoustic guitar, and whistling, but then throwing it through a funhouse mirror of 8-track production and loud percussion. They back up their musical dichotomy lyrically as well—“9 Times a Week” name-drops both the Minutemen and “Frankie Says Relax”. It’s reminiscent of the most recent J. Marinelli album, which is high praise in my book. Clients + Carriers is the band’s debut of sorts—it’s a compilation of the two EPs to their name thus far (Clients, and Carriers) in a single place, as a stopgap before their true first album. Not streaming, but it is name your price on Bandcamp, so no excuses.

“Highlights of 100”, Kiwi Jr.
From Cooler Returns (2021, Sub Pop)

I think “There’s been a specter haunting Texas ever since they drank whiskey on the moon” was the moment I realized I was fully on board with Cooler Returns. “Waiting in Line” might be the more well-constructed number of the two Kiwi Jr.’s on the playlist, but “Highlights of 100” best “highlights” what really works about the album as a whole. It finds the Canadians in full-on carnival barker mode, being handed one line of the song on a notecard, reading it out through the megaphone, ripping the paper up and grabbing the next one before we get the chance to process the images we just got thrown at us. Was that an intentional Taylor Swift lyric reference?  Were they calling back to their first album with the line about the swimming pool? Did he just say “Sixteen terabytes of land, with asterisk and ampersand”?

“What We Wore”, Home Blitz
From All Through the Year (2020, Sophomore Lounge)

“Final Decay” was Home Blitz’s deconstructed pop-dancefloor number, and the 62-second “What We Wore” is more-or-less straightforward jangly dB’s/Game Theory homage piece from All Through the Year. The brevity is probably the most subversive thing about this song—Daniel DiMaggio could have stretched this one out a bit more, and perhaps it would’ve been had it been conceived and recorded at a time when it would’ve had some college radio currency, I.R.S. Records breathing down the auteur’s neck for a “single”. Not in this universe, where it’s merely one of the four horsemen of a 12”. I went with this one over the 9-minute “Real Green” from the same record but that one’s pretty damn impressive too.

“Monolith”, The Chills
From Scatterbrain (2021, Fire)

My partner upon hearing this song commented that it “sounds old” and was shocked to hear it’s from an upcoming album this year. They were onto something with that comment, though—there is an ageless/timeless quality to Martin Phillipps’s voice and in the rollout for the other advance single from Scatterbrain (the aptly-titled “You’re Immortal”), he cited Love’s Forever Changes, a similarly unmoored creation, as a major influence. While I would just be happy with the idea of a new Chills album every three years (which has been our blissful reality since 2015’s Silver Bullets), the vaguely dark and mysterious girding conjured by the driving instrumentation and Phillipps’s high-priest lyrics suggests they’re shooting for something as affecting as “Pink Frost” thirty-five years later.

“Alive and Dying Fast”, Tucker Riggleman & the Cheap Dates
From Alive and Dying Fast (2021, WarHen)

The title track to Alive and Dying Fast finds Tucker Riggleman and his Cheap Dates at a low point, perhaps the lowest on the record. The song starts with Riggleman reflecting on being in what seems like a rut, but the song then becomes a chronicle of that moment when, finding yourself in that rut, you start probing to see how deep in it you can go: “This week has kicked me in the ass” quickly morphs into “I don’t know how I can survive” and “I’m too fucked up” before “Alive and Dying Fast” runs its course. In the context of the entire album, it’s key time spent in the doldrums before one final push towards the “Alive” end of the record title, but taken on its own it’s some cathartic wallowing.

“Will”, Cicala
From Cicala (2021, Acrobat Unstable)

I am a sucker for good use of “catty-corner” in a song, and Cicala delivers effortlessly on this song. Thematically, “Will” is practically the sequel to the aforementioned “Truck Stop”, although it’s a bit more down to Earth and closer to home. Nevertheless, we still meet a narrator using driving and automobiles as escapism (“I never felt more alive in a parking lot” and “I don’t need to feel everything I did” are twin candidates for the thesis of Cicala). In this case, it’s a van that needs to be fixed and the state line that just might be the antidotes. Also, the titular “Will” seems to be the verb rather than the name or the noun, which is a fun twist.

“Car Wash Hair – Full Pull”, Mercury Rev
From Car Wash Hair (1992, Mint Films/Jungle)

Originally encountered by me as the hidden track to 1991’s Yerself Is Steam, but submitted here as the single version for ease of listening. I do not have any Mercury Rev hot takes—I like them, they’re not my favorite band or anything and I’ve only heard their two most notable albums (Steam and Deserter’s Songs) in full, but they’re both pretty solid to my ears. Like anyone else who’s heard both their wild psych early material and shiny indie pop late 90s work, I find it hard to believe that the same band made both—which is partially because, of course, they more or less had become a different band by 1998. “Car Wash Hair”, however, is a harbinger of the friendlier material to come despite appearing on Rev’s free-for-all of a debut album. There are some guitar squalls, to be sure, but the draw here is the simplistic refrain, and the mostly tasteful instrumentation (Horns! Acoustic strumming!) that adorns it.

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